Review: The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan, 2022

I have issues with this book (as always the full Amazon review is included below), but none of them involve the author’s contention that the present global civilization is going to unwind back a century or two (possibly much more) starting, well, now. My main problem has to do with Zeihan’s treatment of climate change but in addition, and in general, the problem is his own failure to fully integrate the impact of all the unwinding that will take place along every dimension he explores. I will give one example.

Zeihan says that as the world’s land becomes mostly barren again (shortages of water, fertilizer, and fuel for farm machinery) we might yet be able to grow more food on what remains thanks to genetic engineering. He forgets however that genetic engineering is an incredibly high-tech process demanding inputs (chemicals, plastics, facilities, instruments, electricity, computers) that will no longer be reliably available even in the best-off places. There are parts of the book where he goes to some lengths to illustrate the effect of such overlaps, so it surprises me to find such failures, and the elephant in the room is climate change.  

I sent Peter Zeihan an email after reading “The Disunited Nations” suggesting he read Wallace-Wells’ “The Uninhabitable Earth”. I do not know if he took me up on my suggestion and this present book has no bibliography. From what he does say about climate’s impact on his geopolitical subject matter it does not seem that he has. Zeihan thinks the U.S. is in the best position to weather the storm (metaphorically and literally speaking). Even if he is right about the last part, things won’t be nearly as sanguine as even he thinks – and that isn’t very sanguine to begin with. 

To set some parameters and be fair to Zeihan, I note up front that his timeframe is a mere 30 or so years beginning now and extending into the 2050s. The Earth is not going to be uninhabitable as soon as 2050. On the other hand, Zeihan thinks that some sort of new geopolitical equilibrium will emerge around that time. That contention is problematic because by then the impact of climate change will have become extreme (and costly) enough to prevent any such equilibrium from evolving and that is the point he misses. As bad as climate-related issues will be in 2050, they will continue to get worse for hundreds (possibly thousands) of years.

By 2050, at least, the Eastern seaboard and Gulf coasts of the U.S. will be fighting for their lives if there is any money left to fight with. Zeihan seems to think there will not be a lot of cheap (or any) financing by then; for example financing to prop up sea walls and harden port facilities. If he is right about that part, then Manhattan will lose its subway system, and the barrier islands protecting our Eastern and Gulf coasts will be gone; if not underwater entirely, then so battered as to be useless to anyone. New Orleans will almost certainly be underwater most of the time as will the southern half of Florida. Port facilities can be relocated to the new coasts at great expense, but cities are not so easily moved at any expense. 

The southern half of the U.S. will experience unlivable summer temperatures not for twenty or so days a year as they do now but sixty, ninety or more, as will most of India, Southern Europe, the Middle East, much of China, and so on. Survival will depend on air conditioning, of which there will be much less because there will be much less electricity (gas and oil goes away for lack of transport, solar and wind for lack of critical imported materials, leaving coal as the only option for most including the U.S. which will have mostly exhausted its shale resources). In the winter, the jet stream becomes unstable projecting itself deep into the American south bringing freezing arctic cold. Not such a big deal (except when people in Texas freeze to death), but those icy intrusions move east and come into contact with ever warmer air coming up from the Gulf. The result is an explosion of tornados and torrential rain. The massive midwestern floods (I note in both the summer and winter) of the last few years will be small potatoes by comparison.    

A California forest service scientist recently said: “in twenty years every burnable acre in California will burn,” a timespan well within Zeihan’s forecast. Indeed this applies to almost the entire western third of the country and extends into both Canada and Alaska, not to mention drought-plagued Mexico and Brazil.

Zeihan says we cannot predict what will happen climatologically at the zipcode level. True, but we can do better than he does, especially as concerns that part of the world surrounding the Himalyan mountains, the source of water for both greater India and Pakistan, but also China and every country of South East Asia. The Chinese are daming every major river coming out of Tibet and passing through China – which is most of them! At the moment, water (albeit less of it) still flows through the Mekong delta. Soon enough (twenty-five years? Fifty?) it will not and much of that sub-continent will starve. How long before Himalayan ice is gone or irrelevant?

China will have the last of that water, but when the Tibetan glaciers finally disappear, the Chinese dams will do little good, much as the Hoover dam in Nevada which is now so depleted that its ability to generate electricity will soon be curtailed – so much for green hydropower. Southern California’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry could now suck down every remaining drop of the Colorado River. So could Phoenix, and they are but two of the jurisdictions that have relied on that water for the last ninty years!

This is the big problem in Zeihan’s book; he ignores obvious intersections between climate and his major sub-topics. For example, there is a long chapter on the world’s present capacity to finance mega-projects of all kinds. He gives very good reasons why, in a more disconnected world, such financing, and so such projects, will vanish. But that means money for climate disaster mitigagion (already unaffordable multi-billions a year for the U.S. alone) will be gone altogether. 

Even where we see disaster approaching, we will not be able to do anything about it! In my part of the world major highways and coastal infrastructure already begin to flood regularly in king tides – even in the absence of heavy rain. The region (a mere two or three hundred square miles in America’s still-richest State of 164,000 square miles) already cannot afford to address all the problems we see now! Above I noted that ports can be moved to new coastlines. But that takes a lot of money that won’t be available. How will America trade with even regional partners (or berth its mighty navy) with all her ports under water?

That is the sum and substance of the book’s problem in my opinion. For further reference, this review of “The Uninhabitable Earth” by Wallace-Wells is the center of my view on climate geopolitics. Have a look. 

The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan 2022

This latest by Peter Zeihan is something of a culmination of his last few books. The present interconnected world in which every independent State, even failed ones, can participate in a global market is coming to an end and what will replace it will look much more like 1850 in the “developed” world, and 1500 in much of the rest. 

Sustaining the world’s present connectedness rests essentially on three things: safe and cheap transport across the world’s oceans, energy for everything (including said transport), and a  population young enough to turn the economic cranks that make it all run. The first of these depends on the Americans who will soon find it too expensive to maintain the practice (and this especially in the face of headwinds put up by two powers otherwise the biggest beneficiaries of American protection of the sea lanes: Russia and China). If bulk transport becomes too expensive, energy supplies dry up. Not everywhere of course but enough places to disrupt every market on the planet. Demographically, most (but again not all) of the world is doomed to experience labor shortages and excessive costs for retirees in this decade.

Zeihan explores the intersection of transport, energy, economics, materials, demographics, technology, and agriculture. He tries to suggest who will be winners, losers, or fall in between in the great unwinding. Before the modern era of protected sea lanes, geography, where your country is on the globe, its climate, resources, and what it looked like, mountains, rivers, etc., made the biggest difference between the winners and losers. True global trade changed all that. It’s going to change back. I think his handling of all this material is superb (though many of the quips sprinkling the book fall flat). He does note that even at its most destructive, the sort of devolution he projects is not the worst that could happen if, for example, someone starts throwing nuclear weapons around. 

The shortcoming appears on the matter of climate change (one of the factors increasing the cost of everything and so corroding global interconnections) which Zeihan mentions here and there, but considers more specifically only with respect to agriculture. This is far from enough treatment. I will deal with this further in my blog, but here mention only one issue. Zeihan projects that the really bad stuff, the global unwinding, will begin now, go through its roughest patches by the 2030-40s, and in the 2050s will congeal into something new. Some stability will reemerge, at least in the better-off places. 

I think he is wrong about this last part because the climate situation (and he correctly notes many reasons why “green tech” will not save us) is not going to stabilize merely because a reduced human population comes to some new lower energy equilibrium in the 2050s. The climate is going to keep getting more destructive, and more inimical to human life across the entire globe for the next several (possibly more) thousand years!

Finally, I have a technical bone to pick with the publisher. This book is filled with tables and graphs impossible to read on a real Kindle. Yes, I can use a Kindle reader on my phone or laptop and examine the figures, but that is no excuse. There is a way to format embedded images so they can be expanded and read easily on a real Kindle. In this case, the publisher didn’t bother. The result, in the ebook, is less than optimum. 

Review: The Disunited Nations by Peter Zeihan

“Disunited Nations” is a forecast of the world’s geopolitical layout twenty to fifty years from now. The “global order” set up in 1946 (see review included below) is unwinding, but it is not unwound. Peter Zeihan doesn’t fix dates, but it is reasonable to suppose that, as he sees it, the complete unwinding will take another ten-to-fifteen years. Following that, it will be another fifteen-to-twenty-five more years for the dust to settle into some new version of normal. Forty years (to ~2060) and the geopolitical world will stand transformed. Alas Zeihan’s analysis, the status of nations in that future, implicitly takes climate to be a constant. He mentions “climate change” only once, doesn’t discuss it, and misses its implications for the same time-frame. 

“The Uninhabitable Earth” (2018 by David Wallace-Wells) makes climatological projections for roughly the same time-frame, twenty-five to fifty years from 2020. Wallace-Wells goes beyond that, but the near to medium-term climate future contains enough change to alter not merely the geopolitics of the world but the geography and geophysics of it! According to Wallace-Wells, a further two to three-degree centigrade rise in average temperature is now “baked into the system”. If we cease all industrial carbon output now, we will reach two degrees over the 1900 base (we are at one degree and change now) in thirty or so years, three degrees in seventy-five. But we are not “stopping all industrial carbon output now”, nor does it appear that we will even slow it appreciably over the next twenty-five years. As a result, we will hit two degrees in fifteen years and three degrees twenty or twenty-five years later, all of this well within Zeihan’s geopolitical time-frame.

The most direct climatological impact has to do with a weather-related concept called “wet-bulb temperature”, a measurement of the temperature if relative humidity was one-hundred percent. Human beings cannot survive the heat (in the absence of some mitigating technology) if bodies cannot sweat their way to cooling down. At 35C, you will die if the humidity is near one-hundred percent. At 45C, fifty-percent humidity is enough to kill you. A few dozen cities around the world reach lethal temperature and humidity levels on multiple days during their summers. In Wallace-Wells’ view, this condition will prevail over virtually all the tropical and much of the temperate Earth by 2075, possibly by 2050! In between now and then, the next five or ten years, the number of places and the number of days on which people (always the elderly and other vulnerable groups first) die because it is too hot will continue to expand. 

How much difference does a degree or two celsius make? In 2020, Phoenix had a record 50 days hitting 110F (44C), shattering the old record (33 days) set only 9 years earlier. The hottest it got was over 120F! When the climate hits 2C degrees warming, Phoenix will experience one-hundred or more days a year of such high temperatures, and on some days, temperatures will reach 130F (54C)! Phoenix is already pretty hot. In 2030 the outside will be very uncomfortable for a third of the year and, simply put, not survivable on the worst days. The city will require more electricity and water to cool buildings and sustain life. Electricity may, perhaps, be forthcoming. As for water, the Colorado river will by then be a fraction of the present volume (already below levels when the river’s physical connection to Phoenix was made). At three degrees celsius, no one will be able to afford to protect themselves from the heat in Phoenix! 

When does a city, even one well above sea level, become unlivable thanks to heat and humidity? Does it happen when the temperature exceeds lethal levels ten days a year, fifty, or a hundred? In Zeihan’s terms, some of the impacts may be perversely beneficial! Hot weather that kills mostly the elderly might help correct a nation’s demographic decline by rebalancing the age distribution! 

The people of Phoenix, and for that matter, much of the globe, will have no place to go. By 2075 coastlines the world over will be transformed; their megapolises, presently the locus of most economies, will be gone. The rough triangle between Houston TX, Mobile AL, and St. Louis MO, will be a permanent part of the Gulf of Mexico. Large-scale permanent “oceanification” will happen to low-lying places the world over. Bangladesh will be underwater, as will South Florida and a good deal of North-Western Europe.  Today’s productive farmlands in temperate zones will be too hot and too wet (the central U.S.) or too dry (California) to grow many of the crops produced in those regions today. In California, people might retreat to the mountains’ relative coolness, but those places are burning down! A leading wildland fire expert said that every burnable [wildland] acre in California would burn at least once in the next ten to twenty years!   

Zeihan projects a future based on fixed (geographic) and fluid but forecastable (demographics, present requirements for food and energy, resources) data. Like his data, some climate impacts (rising sea levels) are pretty much a sure thing, though exactly how fast this happens remains unknown. The physical geography of the world’s coastal plains (some extending inland hundreds of miles) will be very different. Food and the availability of freshwater will impact demographic trends. Zeihan makes it clear that the world of 2050 will not produce and transport as much food as it now does. He projects famine. Climate considerations suggest that famine will be global and not merely a regional problem. What will Indo-Pakistani populations do when all the Himalayan glaciers melt away, and the Indus and Ganges rivers are a tiny fraction of their present volume? In poorer food-producing (and especially water-scarce) regions, there will be mass starvation.   

Rising water will not cover the Earth. There will always be coasts somewhere. Rivers will empty into the new coastlines; new port opportunities will arise. But some of those places will merge into the regions where it is too hot or dry or wet to survive without expensive infrastructure. Will even a rich country like the United States be able to afford any of this? Longer than others, perhaps, but not by all that much. There is more woe to be had. Will cropland problems (heat, drought, floods, crop-destroying winds)  be as severe as the sea level problem twenty years from now, or will that take fifty years? Either way, the question becomes tangled with Zeihan’s projections for the relative worth of national economies, and American cropland will not alone be negatively affected by climate.   

The answers to how this works out in the near term, say the next ten to fifteen years, lie in the economic intersection between Zeihan’s analysis and climatological effects (see the link to the Wallace-Wells book, and also “The Geography of Risk” for other discussions of it). Coastal populations will fight rising waters; others will wrestle with drought, fire, or floods from storms. All will battle the rising temperature, and at some point, varying in each part of the world, it will become too expensive to do so. We cannot predict exactly when the cost of climate-mitigation will first exhaust a national economy (in the U.S., the barrier islands of the Eastern Seaboard, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico), or when New York City begins abandoning large sections of itself.  Still, that time is but a few decades away at most. Bangladesh has less time than that! The bottom line is this: Zeihan projects a specific global distribution of wealth and resources fifty years from now. He projects massive refugee migrations because the “global order” that presently sustains many populations by trade will be gone. Thanks to climate change, that wealth (broadly and with possible partial-exceptions in places like Canada, Siberia, and the Nordic nations) will be one-tenth (the money [energy, resources] spent on early climate-mitigation efforts) and the refugee populations ten or a hundred-times what Zeihan projects. 

I haven’t the grasp of details I need to juggle Zeihan’s country-by-country analysis of the world after “the order” has collapsed plus the impact of climate change. I can make two generalizations with reasonable certainty. (1) While climate change will not alter the distribution of resources in the Earth’s crust, it will impact every other parameter Zeihan considers. (2) Everyone will come out much worse off than Zeihan predicts. I can only hope he will read this, and it will give him an idea for a follow-on book.

Dis-United Nations By Peter Zeihan (2020)

This book looks at the future of the Earth’s various nations and their relations over roughly the next 50-75 years. If you read other authors on international relations, you will recognize many of the same notes struck. But Zeihan is less interested in the relations between governments compared to that between physical countries (and regions) situated in specific geopolitical settings, with their particular demographics and economic requirements both on the selling side (outputs), and resources (inputs) needed to produce goods and feed its population. 

Zeihan opens in 1946 when the U.S. economy was half the world’s economy. The way Zeihan sees it, unlike the empires of the past whose conquests were mostly military, the U.S. offered the world a bribe. First, the U.S. would patrol the seas and guarantee freedom of navigation everywhere to all. Second, the U.S. would fight and bleed for any ally when necessary. Third, the U.S. would open its markets to its partners even if they partly protected their own. Fourth, the U.S. would provide financial liquidity to grease all the wheels and make this work. 

This four-part bribe has worked for the most part to grow the economy of the planet, feed expanding populations, and in general, keep any tendency to militaristic conquest to a minimum. The trade relationships and supply chains developed over the last half of the 20th Century, and the first decades of the 21st, are a testimony to its success. It hasn’t been perfect. Not everyone wanted to be on board. But as it happened, the great majority of the world’s economies did get on board (even China since 1972) and have benefitted, over-all (not without hiccups) as a result.

The problem is, the bribe has run its course. The U.S. economy is now about twenty-five percent of the world economy, not half. The five-hundred-fifty ship navy the U.S. had in 1946 is now down to about three-hundred ships, and one-hundred of those dedicated to supporting nine super-carriers. The U.S. can no longer afford to be the guarantor of the sea lanes, nor be an open market to any import. The same is becoming true of standing military commitments around the world. The American people are tired of bleeding, or the threat of bleeding, for others whose interests are not often aligned with our own, and there are not enough dollars to float all economic boats. 

Not only is the “great order” unwinding, but scatter-shot American foreign policy, a policy without any clear direction, is helping dissolve it even faster than it otherwise needs to go (not that other governments are much help). The question is, what happens when all of those U.S. guarantees are gone (the U.S. is, for now, still patrolling the seas). That future is what this book is about. 

Zeihan takes us on a tour of the world by country and region, describing what each will experience when the order is gone. His dominant considerations revolve around internal geography, location in the world, and population demographics over the next fifty years. The parents of that generation, the youth of fifty-years from now, already born. The economics of resources come next. What does a country (or region) produce? What inputs does it need to make whatever it is? How does it feed its population, where do its energy and materials come from, and so on? As it turns out, by Zeihan’s analysis some nations and regions will do better than others. Most end up very badly, and the mix won’t be what you expect. To be clear about one thing though, “better” and “worse” are relative terms as he makes clear at the end of his analysis. No one will be as well off in absolute terms as they are right now!

As refreshing and unexpected as it is, Zeihan’s analysis has a blind spot. It is strange that except in the context of Japan, China, and the Middle East, he never focuses on India and the Indo-Pakistani region. Not sure how he missed that one, but he did. Meanwhile, his projections have a broader problem. He mentions climate change literally one time and says nothing about it. The impact of climate change is noticeable even now, and within the fifty-plus-year timespan covered in the book climatic effects will be much more dramatic. The book Zeihan should factor into his analysis is not geopolitical but geophysical: “The Uninhabitable Earth” (2018 by David Wallace-Wells). Nothing in that book augers against any of Zeihan’s analysis except to make the outcomes for everyone even worse than his broad brush paints them. I will address this intersection in my blog.